John Wood and Paul Harrison

‘Enter and look. Come and see. Exhaust your looks until your eyes close ... […]. See the invisible, not beyond the visible, nor inside, nor outside, but right at it, on the threshold…’ Jean-Luc Nancy, Multiple Arts: The Muses II.

Within the flattening light of a white rectangular room, a dark vertical line of a dark blue-clothed figure stands facing a white door. The figure takes one step towards the door, pulls the handle, and open space falls into the room, given mass, velocity and direction as a solid grey rectangular door-shaped plank that comes to rest (thunk!) against the forehead of the figure. The grey plank now forms a diagonal rising from threshold to forehead -- a vector drawn for the opening of space inward that also draws the eye outwards again, towards the threshold at which we see the diaphanous blue of another opening (26 Drawing and Falling Things, 2001). Enter and look. Come and see the invisible beauty of gravity given palpable shape, the untouchable force of light given texture and form: the uniform acceleration of falling bodies traced by a luminous line of green tennis balls falling to the ground (The only other point, 2005); the velocity of impact marked by the muffled thud of a human body tied to a mattress or the resonant crash of ball falling on cymbal (Device 1996; The only other point, 2005); the speed of light condensed into particles of white sugar falling from a funnel onto a black spot, until darkness gradually disappears under the rise of white grains emerging against a white background (Notebook, 2004); the diffraction of light materialised as the sudden explosion of a fluorescent bulb crushed under the weight of a foot stepping backwards (10x10, 2011). In that part of the minimalist universe captured by the video works of John Wood and Paul Harrison, gravity is not only the force that brings bodies (human, organic, mechanical) down to earth with a light touch of humour and a hint of violence; it is the consequence of the mass and shape of things, the sculpted choreography of bodies moving through and opening up space within the flat, containing rectangle of the video camera’s field of vision.

The law of falling bodies
In the world at large, as in the world of Wood and Harrison, much of the pathos and humour of man’s earth-bound existence derives from our equal subjection, despite all artifice, to this fundamental law of gravity: that all bodies (in a vacuum), regardless of mass, whether human or mechanical, natural or artificial, fall to the ground at the same rate. But if, in their carefully choreographed scenes, the artists subject their own bodies (tied to a mattress, precariously suspended by ropes) to the same gravitational force as tennis balls, sheets of paper, plastic cups, and toy trains, it is not merely in order to playfully perform the principle of equivalence that governs the physics of our everyday lives, or to demonstrate the postmodern truism that to be human is to be an embodied thing among other embodied things. It is also to draw the viewer’s attention to that threshold where gravity’s principle of equivalence confronts the principle of aesthetics, and to render visible and palpable the minute qualitative differences and uncanny beauty of all that falls. In one scene, the delicate inertia of a sheet of white paper stuck to a wall is confronted by the heft of a garden leaf blower held by the artist, and we watch in expectant fascination as the white two dimensional rectangle slips from its moorings, folds into a 3 dimensional curve, before falling flat as a 2 dimensional rectangle on the floor (26 Drawing and Falling Things, 2001). In another scene, the invisible trajectory of air from an oscillating fan is traced by the graceful spiral pattern of falling plastic cups blown over on a table (Notebook, 2004). In yet another scene, which playfully reproduces the techniques, if not the effects, of a physics experiment, the velocity, direction, momentum of impact of a tennis ball is marked by a diminishing curve of blue paint spots left by the ball with each bounce (26 Drawing and Falling Things, 2001).

If in these scenes we are fascinated by the almost balletic lightness of falling bodies – paper-thin bodies that slip to the ground, concave bodies that spiral and roll, spherical bodies that bounce -- other scenes entice us with moments when the carefully choreographed balance of bodies in a state of dynamic equilibrium is derailed, and gravity suddenly reveals the unexpected heaviness of things as they crash or thud to the ground. In one such scene, a model train circles a track whose outer half is suspended in air over the edge of a table, and we wait expectantly for the moment when the moving weight of the train destabilizes the horizontal equilibrium of the track, the moment when both train and track suddenly assume a dynamic, earth-bound, verticality (crash!) (Notebook, 2004). In other scenes, where the artists manipulate their own bodily weight to achieve a precarious equilibrium within or against sculpted geometric forms (Boat, Two Wall Sections, Boat 2) the precision and almost graceful inertia of material forms is set against the effort of two mis-matched human bodies (Wood short, Harrison tall) in their stoic struggle to maintain balance or coordinated form (and here we are playfully reminded that inertia, the desire of every material body to remain in its existing state, originally meant ‘want of art’). When the artists subject their own bodies to the same force of gravity as inanimate objects, the joyous absurdity of watching things crash and fall may be undercut by an unsettling awareness of subdued violence. But this tension between violence and absurdity is yet another dimension of the tension between gravity and levity that runs throughout their work, a tension that ultimately resides in the mediation of the weighty movement of corporeal bodies by the incorporeal, still light of the video camera.

‘They could hardly contain themselves’ – Harrison and Wood, Night and Day

If there is a certain claustrophilia evident in Wood and Harrison’s attention to the minimalist mechanics of bodies moving and falling within small, containing forms, there is also a playful attention to the perceptual effects of light that provides a palpable, if minimal, opening of space. This opening may occur in the way that the artists present spectral colours against a greyscale background, where a vibrant blue rectangle appears like a segment of sky against the background of a grey wall, or the circumference of a square room is traced by a waist-high line of viridian that unfolds like a greenbelt from the artist’s rolling paint brush. Or it may emerge in the play of darkness and illumination, such as in Night and Day (2008), where the temporality of light is spatialised in the sudden, explosive flash of a strobe light that tracks the movement of a body through a darkened room, or in the steady beam of direct light on the opaque form of a broom handle whose shadow opens against the wall to form a perfect isosceles triangle. In 10x10 (2011), the claustrophilia of the modern age finds its perfect setting in humourous stagings of scenes within a corporate office, where a photocopier flashes light pulses in the emptiness of a darkened room or the artist (in suitable corporate dress) sets to work inflating colourful balloons within the drab greyness of his enclosure. In this work, as though to comment upon the stasis and inertia of the modern office, here it is the lightness of the video image that is subject to the force of gravity, as the camera tracks down from scene to scene like a lift descending each floor. Here, we are voyeurs invited to enter and look at scenes that open at the threshold of boredom or impending violence. But, as in all of Wood and Harrison’s work, the tension between the two moods is released by moments of humourous levity where we, if not the artists, give ourselves over to a good laugh. As one of their latest works, Bored Astronauts on the Moon (2011), so humourously suggests, a world without the light touch of gravity is no fun at all.

Adrienne Janus, September 2012

Adrienne Janus is an academic who has published extensively on philosophical aesthetics, on continental philosophy and on the relation between literature, music and performance art. She received her PhD in comparative literature from Stanford in 2004 and currently lectures in English and Comparative Literature at the University of Aberdeen (Scotland).